Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill’s third collection of stories, which came out earlier this year, was a painful read for me. I did not find the stories so shocking as others have, but I did find them mostly tiresome.
I used to teach the story “Romantic Weekend,” from Gairskill’s first collection Bad Behavior that was published to some buzz about her “bad girl” image some twenty years ago. “Romantic Weekend” features some soft-core wannabe sadomasochism and posed some interesting questions about the male desire for dominance and the popular image of woman as submissive victim. However, the story had little to do with classic literary sadomasochism, which is always more drama than dominance, but it raised the hackles of some and titillated others. Bad Behavior also included a story that Director Steven Shainberg used as the basis for his 2002 movie Secretary, which starred Maggie Gyllenhaal as a woman who cut herself and James Spader as a dominating boss—a cast made in heaven for a match made in hell.
Don’t Cry has elicited such Book Review headlines as “Gaitskill’s Tales Draw Blood,” “Peep Show of Violence and Self-Contempt,” “Pitiless Eye,” Princess of Darkness,” “Walk in the Dark,” and “Mary, Mary, Ever So Contrary.” But this is not so much “Naughty Mary” as it is “Wearisome Mary.”
The stories are not clearly delineated narratives; rather, they are more like essayistic descriptions of ensemble groups positioned around one central character’s sense of disengagement and despair. I will comment on only one story, “The Agonized Face,” for it seems central and typical. The narrator has been assigned to write a piece on a feminist author who is giving a talk at an annual literary festival. The author was once a prostitute and has described prostitutes as feminist fighters against patriarchy. She talks about how she has been treated unfairly by the media, insisting that although she can understand it is exciting to imagine a kooky person off doing unimaginable stuff, that she is not that person. She complains that when we isolate qualities that seem exciting and scary and project them on a person, we deny that person her humanity and cheat ourselves of life’s complexity.
One wonders if this is a reference to the initial public interest in Gaitskill’s work after Bad Behavior was published, which created a great deal of publicity buzz about the fact that she had once been a stripper. When an interviewer asked her if she had ever turned a trick, without hesitation she replied that she had, earning Gaitskill a reputation that perhaps she has since regretted.
Much of “The Agonized Face” reads like a personal essay on whether feminists have made girls into sluts who think they have to have sex all the time or whether they have overprotected them into thinking they have been raped when they were just having sex. Various images of Gaitskill’s own persona crop up in the story. For example, when the narrator tells about interviewing a topless dancer, a desiccated blonde with desperate intelligence burning in her eyes, who is big on Hegel and Nietzsche, one is tempted to turn to the jacket cover of the Don’t Cry for the picture of Gaitskill staring out at the reader both defensively and belligerently. Recalling another story she once wrote about a TV talk show that depicted stories of rape victims, the narrator wonders if the feminist author was suggesting that rape and being a prostitute were the same thing, concluding, in her essayistic tone, that for the purposes of her “discussion,” they are close enough.
The article the narrator finally writes takes the feminist writer to task for pretending that female humiliation is an especially smart kind of game and casually mentioning her experience with prostitution, while leaving out the “agonized face” of women’s humiliation in modern society. In her article, she metaphorically chases the author down an alley, to stone her and force her to show the face that she denies. For she insists the “agonized face” is one of the few mysteries left to women and must be protected.
Generally, I found most of Gaitskill’s stories didactic and tedious, rambling and discursive. In an essay in the collection Why I Write, she says she writes because even when it is about pain and horror, she has a powerful desire to say, “Yes, I see. I feel. I hear. This is what it’s like.” I am, of course, very interested in finding “what it’s like,” but I don’t need to be subjected to a lecture disguised as a short story. I would like to hear what women readers of this blog think about the stories of Mary Gaitskill.